Diving into an artist's world
“You can’t control nature.”
Having entered into the world of film at the age of 18, filmmaker Katy Fraser made it her mission to become a proficient tech diver and share the natural world with the masses. After moving to Mexico in 2014, she began her cave diving training. By filming in these mysterious cenotes, she hoped to debunk the myth that caving diving is a sport for adrenaline junkies.
“I needed to find a niche to break into the industry. This for me was really a question of looking hard at the cards I had been dealt and what I had to work with,” Katy explains. “I had to come up with a business plan of how I could make this work. I was extremely creative and at this point I had learnt how to edit my own films together but that wasn’t a niche. I wondered how far I could get if I used the money that would have been spent on university fees for diving qualifications. I found that, if you fully immerse yourself in a small community like the diving world turns out you can get a pretty long way. It wasn’t long before I was trading film for courses or for equipment, making friends who would teach me free of charge and travelling from country to country ploughing through diving qualifications.”
As a young child she had been terrified of the ocean but realised that it was fundamentally a fear of the unknown combined with a very creative, overactive imagination. After a mildly traumatic experience in a first attempt to snorkel over Egypt’s Blue Hole with her family, which resulted in her scrambling back onto land in a blind panic, she was gently encouraged to try diving in order to get over her fear by her aunt and uncle, who were avid divers themselves. This consisted of the owner of the dive shop drawing up a contract with saying that if she saw any jellyfish, octopus or sharks, he would give her his dive centre. That first dive was a life changing experience. “Diving removed the unknown for me, it explained the underwater world and instead of being afraid I was fascinated and could suddenly relate to this whole bustling ecosystem that exists beneath the surface,” she says.
“The underwater world is humbling and so aesthetic. I think what excites me most is all the variables. You can’t control nature, the challenge is having to work with what you are presented in a particular moment. Trying to show nature in all its glory, one snapshot at a time, is definitely what draws me.”
In 2016, a man dubbed ‘the extreme artist’ came to the dive centre where Katy was working with a project in mind. Having climbed Mount Everest, trekked into the Borneo Rainforest and even dived alongside icebergs in Antarctica in order to paint these incredible landscapes, Philip Gray decided on his next artistic project destination – the cenotes of Mexico. As a proficient technical diver and underwater filmmaker, Katy was well-positioned to film his project. “What interested me most about Philip’s work was Philip himself. He is, in many ways, this fascinating walking contradiction,” she says. “Listening to his diving stories from his days in the Navy and seeing how he has turned that skill into something extremely unique with no training, just a raw talent and passion was inspiring to me. He is a creative through and through, it sparked a great friendship and therefore a great film as a consequence.”
They set to work and carefully curated a team to support the project logistics and to ensure that Philip and his equipment was placed with minimal impact to the caverns and resident wildlife of the cenotes. He used paint that wasn’t soluble in water and applied it directly to his canvas, watched closely by Katy and the rest of her team. “At the start, I was quite sceptical of the outcome,” she says. “I thought: ‘how on earth does someone paint underwater?’ I think watching the first painting in the cenotes come to life through my viewfinder was the most significant experience. With a gloved hand he started finger painting, then proceeded to start using scrapers and tools, totally immersed in the vibrant scene in front of him. Realising over the course of that session the extent of Philip’s talent was amazing. Every dive after that was filled with excitement and anticipation for what he would bring to life on the canvas next, and there was always a beautiful outcome.”
The process wasn’t without its challenges. Meticulous planning was required and there were still a few technical difficulties that cropped up in the lesser-dived caves. Their shoot in Casa Cenote, which is very shallow with a sandy floor, should have been quite straightforward. “Normally what we would mitigate against disturbing any sediment on the cavern floor, as this is paramount in cave conservation,” explains Katy. “On this dive we placed Philip with his own line running slightly off the cavern line. As that area wasn’t dived very much, the traffic of people’s bubbles hadn’t cleared the roof of organic debris and percolation. Minutes after setting Philip up there he quickly disappeared from view in a cloud of debris raining down from the ceiling from his bubbles!”
Now, three years later, Katy is based in Bristol, UK, and the product of those shoots are featuring as part of the Ocean Film Festival UK tour. Entitled ‘A Peace Within’, it showcases both the otherworldly beauty of the cenotes but also how well Philip manages to capture those underwater scenes within his work. “I hope what Philip does inspires people to travel and be creative and outrageous in their aspirations. The sky’s the limit,” adds Katy.
Ever since, Katy has been in high demandk, having now worked as an underwater camera operator on Steve Backshall’s Undiscovered Worlds and Expedition projects for the BBC and UKTV Dave. She’s even lined up to be a TEDx speaker later this year. “What drew me to the cenotes and cave diving was the people, it came along at a very critical time for me where I needed some standardisation in my diving and to feel I was diving with people that were like-minded and safe,” she says. “I felt it was an art form and a challenge and I really liked how meticulous everything was. I feel very fortunate to have had the time to spend honing that skill and being able to capture what truly is one of the world’s final unexplored frontiers.”
Currently working on a number of exciting non-disclosure projects, Katy is also working towards becoming a Blue Chip Natural History camera operator in her own right. This involves creating sequences that show animal behaviour in a way that gets across the individual personalities of various animals and their relationships. “Sadly, it seems to be human nature that we can’t empathise with something unless we see somewhat human traits in its behaviour,” she says. “This anthropomorphism is so important to capture because it helps people to see that animals are thinking and feeling beings.”
In her near decade of time spent working in the natural history field, what changes has she noticed? “The more natural history shoots I do and the more I become immersed in the industry, the more I notice that there is a sad recurring theme. Animal populations are declining, behaviour is changing and nature is less predictable due to an erratic and changing climate,” she says. “Climate change is devastatingly real. In capturing the underwater world and doing it justice in a way that educates people, I hope people will realise that this is something that deserves protecting.”
Art and the underwater world can go hand-in-hand in a mutually symbiotic way. It’s a space that inspires creativity in a huge variety of forms, from film and photography to fine painting and music. Today, in the midst of a growing global movement to protect the marine ecosystems, it is clear that a passion for the underwater world combined with creativity and a sense of adventure unites people in amazing ways.
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